Screeching meets social-minded speechifying in writer-director Mark Harris’ Black Coffee, which can’t decide whether it wants to be a fluffy and disposable romantic comedy about kicking a gold-digger to the curb and finding love with a likeminded young professional, or a slightly more serious-minded relationship movie-cum-treatise on the present-day African-American urban experience.
When he’s fired from his job and dumped by his materialistic girlfriend of two years on the same day, Los Angeles commercial painter Robert (Darrin Dewitt Henson) is momentarily thrown for a loss. In short order, though, through his cousin Julian (Christian Keyes), who sells his own line of specialty coffee, Robert meets lawyer Morgan (Gabrielle Dennis). He pitches some woo, and after cooking one meal for Morgan at an early hour so as to avoid it being classified as a date, the two seem to have mutual locks on each other’s hearts.
There’s a lot more movie left, however, so Morgan comes clean about the complicated nature of her relationship with her controlling ex-husband, Hill (Lamman Rucker), to whom she signed over a bunch of property in their divorce. And Robert’s ex, Mita (Erica Hubbard), keeps buzzing around like a gnat, even though she has a new man. As Robert endeavors to keep Mita out of his life, and takes advice from Julian on exercising his own entrepreneurial muscles, he and Morgan have to decide whether they’re right for one another or simply on the rebound.
It’s obviously important to Harris that Black Coffee makes a statement about African Americans supporting African-American entrepreneurs and businesses, which is fine. But this theme is rather unsophisticatedly interwoven, and Harris blunders his way into all kinds of uncomfortable racial politics by having Robert fired by a same-aged white boss, Nate (Josh Ventura), who we’re told runs the business started and built into a success by Robert’s father—a fact that makes absolutely no sense.
This early problem quickly takes a backseat to a litany of other misplayed details, however. Notable among these is the fact that Julian apparently makes bank ($50,000 in the last six months, he twice notes) by charging $30 for a one-pound bag of coffee, and never seeming to sell anything in bulk. With astonishing consistency, Harris’ movie finds little ways to ring false. Then, at the 70-minute mark, it breaks the fourth wall for no particular reason or advantage (it’s not even a main character who does it), and stumbles awkwardly into an extended musical montage of its detestable secondary characters falling in love. Wait … what?
Harris has a tin ear for dialogue that is particularly problematic when the film is peddling its social agenda (“I know the present view of marriage is pretty distorted in today’s society, especially among black folks”), but he also often seems to put words in the mouths of his characters that just aren’t believable, given what we see of them, and how they present themselves. “Real men wear steel-tipped work boots,” Robert tells his cousin, even though he is never shown working outdoors, apparently owns a posh, well-appointed two-story house (another issue, given Los Angeles real estate prices), and is decidedly more Under Armour than blue-collar.
The film’s technical package is lacking, as well. Cinematographer Adam Lee shoots a bright if boxy frame that feels more suited to the small screen, and he and Harris run into basic coverage issues that on several occasions result in awkward editing within very simple two-shots.
Though it centered much more around the dynamic of an interracial relationship, 2006’s smart and underrated Something New, from writer Kriss Turner and director Sanaa Hamri, also delved into issues of African-American social values and Los Angeles small business ownership in a much more interesting and satisfying manner.
The only real redeeming feature of Black Coffee is its leads. While some of the supporting players are operating on another tonal plane, Henson (Stomp the Yard) has an appealing charisma and a sense of broad-shouldered, come-what-may sanguinity that helps ground the material. Additionally, Henson and Dennis share a nice rapport, even when they’re being prodded through exchanges that are a little too on-the-nose to accurately qualify as flirting.
Ultimately, though, Harris’ film is too shot through with trite expressions of familiar scenarios, and weighed down by a phony redemption and catharsis pegged to its significantly boorish significant others, to connect in any meaningful way. It may be packaged slightly differently, but this Coffee is a cheap, tepid store-brand blend, of dubious quality.
Director: Mark Harris
Writer: Mark Harris
Starring: Darrin Dewitt Henson, Gabrielle Dennis, Lamman Rucker, Erica Hubbard, Christian Keyes, Richard Gallion, Josh Ventura
Release Date: Jan. 10, 2014